In the years before democracy, teachers toiled while receiving few accolades and little appreciation for their selflessness and commitment to the teaching profession.
But today they are publicly celebrated, and their role is acknowledged by the prestigious annual National Teaching Awards (NTAs) hosted by the department of basic education (DBE).
The awards are the brainchild of the late Professor Kader Asmal, who introduced the idea 20 years ago during his stint as the minister of education.
The 2019 NTAs event took place at Soshanguve East Secondary School in Tshwane, and in keeping with the tradition of the awards, the Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu delivered the keynote address.
Also gracing the ceremony were dignitaries from government and the broader education fraternity. They included education MECs from the nine provinces, chairpersons and members of the education portfolio and select committees, heads of provincial education departments, Asmal’s family and the sponsors of the various category winners.
In her welcoming remarks, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga praised South Africa’s teachers for their sacrifices and hard work: “Our country owes a debt of gratitude to thousands of teachers who dedicate every minute of their lives to our national effort to improve learners.” Motshekga highlighted the significance her department attaches to the NTAs event, saying in terms of scale and the amount of time and resources they commit, it is second only to the National Senior Certificate results announcement.
She said the recent historic 81.3% matric results by the class of 2019 should be seen as an indication that the education system is on the rise. In addition, she said this could not have been achieved without the extraordinary efforts of teachers “who give of themselves to the education of the nation and her children”.
Motshekga said it is heartening that teachers continue to produce excellent academic results despite the enormously challenging conditions such as poor basic infrastructure, deteriorating school safety and social ills ranging from alcohol and drug abuse, violence, ill-discipline to teenage pregnancies.
“As a nation we are very proud of your commitment, and we acknowledge your selfless service aimed at the betterment of the lives of the South African child. Thank you for nurturing and developing these precious young people in your care so as to ensure that they reach their fullest potential,” said Motshekga.
She said her department’s objective is to work towards achieving “much improved learners’ outcomes, and a high-performing basic education system”, and said that the occasion should also be used to “unite, rebuild, and renew the basic education sector, so that it can leapfrog into the 4th industrial revolution (4IR).”
Mthembu used his address to convey government’s gratitude to the teachers. He also gave an update on government’s plans to improve the quality of the education system and to re-configure it to be in line with changing global trends.
He said in most instances the role of teachers in shaping society is not recognised or appreciated, and stressed how indispensable they are to the country’s education system. Mthembu said the NTAs event should also be used to assess the achievements the country has made 25 years into democracy.
Mthembu said government relies on the committed teaching force to “steer our country back onto the necessary growth path after years of inertia, state capture and general malfeasance”. Teachers are, he said, on the frontline of the government’s collective efforts to implement a skills revolution, to break the cycle of poverty and grow an inclusive economy.
Mthembu said government is committed to “empowering and equipping our teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world”. He said government lays special focus on “foundational skills such as teaching literacy and mathematics”, adding “I am happy to report that we are implementing the Professional Development Framework for Digital Learning”.
He said since the adoption of the framework for digital learning, those tasked with driving the initiative have already set up provincial core training teams in all nine provinces.
Mthembu added that they have partnered with both local and international experts to find ways of ensuring there is a balanced approach to the teaching of numeracy and mathematics as envisaged in the DBE’s recently developed framework for teaching mathematics with understanding.
He added: “The broad outline of the strategy is to ensure that every classroom is a space where quality learning and teaching takes place.” He said all these efforts are aimed to “capacitate all our mathematics teachers, so that their competencies are fit for purpose in a changing world”, and there would be particular focus on foundation phase maths teachers.
He said they are also collaborating with the department of higher education, science and technology to revise and ensure that the requirements for teachers to qualify are in line with new developments in the teaching sector.
Mthembu said the country can only break the cycle of poverty and thus grow an inclusive economy if it overhauls its skills base. He said finishing touches are being made to a concept paper to strengthen the three-stream curriculum model, so that learners can choose streams that match their capabilities.
Another area receiving attention, according to Mthembu, is the foundation phase. Recent numeracy and literacy tests in the foundation phase revealed that the South African learners performed poorly compared to their global counterparts.
“As part of a package of interventions to accelerate education progress in our country, we remain committed to successfully delivering a two-year universal and compulsory early childhood education (ECD),” said Mthembu.
To realise this, he said, they have moved the ECD from the department of social development to the DBE. This means the latter will take full control of the sector and ensure it co-ordinates the curriculum delivery and the training of teachers. “There is no better way to start building the future we imagine than to focus on early learning,” said Mthembu.
He said they also want to encourage more professionals to enter the education system to teach the “gateway” subjects such as maths, science and technology by introducing a Funza Lushaka Bursary. To date, according to Mthembu, they have awarded over R8-billion to 134 211 bursaries between 2007 and 2018.
He said they also encourage teachers who are already in the system to grab training opportunities that are currently available to diversify and upgrade their skills, particularly in new areas of specialisation that are in line with 4IR.
Mthembu said one such emerging area of specialisation that is gaining traction is coding; already 72 000 teachers have undergone initial training. The subject is also being piloted at 1 000 schools, spread across five provinces. The University of South Africa is offering the course. He said there are also plans to introduce a Robotics curriculum from grades R-9 in the near future.